“You can be anyone you want to be”: What does the science say?

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Some self-help books want us to think that we can become basically anyone we want if we just have the right mindset.

Today I want to look into what part of this statement is false, and what part is true.

Maybe you’ve heard the theory that if you spend 10 000 hours doing something, you’ll become world class at it. But that theory has been debunked. To become world class at something, practice isn’t enough, unless you also happen to be born with the right genes.

Our genes play a big role in who we are.

When scientists studied identical twins who grew up in different families, it turned out that their personality was very similar, even though they’d had totally different childhoods. In other words, we’re born with much of our personality.

So if you’re a thoughtful introvert, you probably won’t turn into a party-loving extrovert.

But I’m pretty sure you don’t want that to happen, anyway.

I never wanted to turn into a different person. I wanted to be more confident, more authentic and more attractive. I basically wanted to be really socially successful – without compromising my personality.

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But what results are realistic to expect when it comes to being socially successful, especially if you, like me, wasn’t born social?

It turns out that it’s harder than people think to reach the top 1% but easier than people think to reach the top 10%. Genes only really matter when you’re competing at the very top. When it comes to “just” becoming really good, genes don’t matter much at all.

There are probably people out there who are more socially evolved than I could ever be. But that’s OK, I have already improved enough to have all the friends I want, the social life I want, etc. There are some people I can never be like, but I’ve already reached my goals, so that’s OK.

Scientists have actually measured how important it is to be born “the right way” vs practicing.

In an experiment, they let people control a simulation of the airplanes at a Chicago airport.

That simulation was actually very much in a social situation. There were loads of things to keep in mind. Unpredictable stuff happened all the time and you had to do the right things even though you got stressed.

Some people were simply better off at the test from the start. They were more intelligent, confident and good at handling many things at once. But after just 15 hours of practice, those who were the LEAST talented had become better than the MOST talented were when they started off.

TRACON graph
The difference between the best and the worse was about 10%. After 15 hours of practice, the least talented was already better than the most talented when they started off. (Link to the study | Link to a talk about the study)

The study showed that when it comes to mastering complicated stuff (controlling airplanes, social situations, etc) the effect of practice DOMINATES the effect of genes.

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To become THE best, you need to be born the right way. But to become really good, how you started off doesn’t really matter.

Maybe it sounds strange, but I’m actually glad that I was so bad socially a few years ago. Because I was so bad, my motivation to improve was far stronger than for people who were better off.

Their lives were simply good enough for them to be satisfied, my life wasn’t.

And someone who practices soon becomes better than someone who’s much more talented but isn’t motivated to practice.

I call this “the blessing of a bad start”: People with a bad start get the motivation they need to practice. That practice makes them better than those who were better off at first.

But the scientists also discovered something else: Any practice won’t do.

I know a girl who’s always partying and socializing. She’s probably had thousands of hours of social practice. But to be honest, she’s annoying to be around. She’s an example of the second discovery the scientists made:

Practice alone isn’t enough, you need to make sure you practice the right way. (The scientists call this “Practice Quality”).

We need to make sure that we know what we’re doing. We need to first study social skills unless we want to spend years of trial and error = low practice quality.

Some say that “I don’t need to study social skills. I just need to spend more hours socializing”, but they end up like that girl. First, you need to know what you should do. THEN you practice doing it.

So, what changes can you expect in your life? You could summarize all of the research this way:

  1. You can change your life more than you probably think.
  2. Change takes longer than you probably think, but…
  3. …it happens much faster if you balance practice AND learning.

(Source)

It’s much like a big ship with a small rudder – at first, it’s like nothing happens, but if you pull the rudder long enough, you’ll be amazed by the force of the new path.

To look at more concrete results, let’s look at some of those I’ve helped.

This is the typical journey they make:

  1. Often the first thing they see change is how their conversations run a bit more smoothly. This is thanks to quite simple conversation tips and tricks that most people learn relatively fast. They also see a small improvement in their self-confidence as they learn to act more confidently. But all these improvements are quite superficial and vary from day to day.
  2. A few weeks later they start to be better at finding mutual interests with people they hit it off with. They now become better at keeping in touch with people they like.
  3. After a few months, they’re quite good at focusing their attention outwards and become less self-aware. This is where they really start to become good at making conversations, because when you focus outwards, your brain starts associating as naturally as when you’re with close friends, and topics to talk about pop up naturally.
  4. Here’s also where their self-confidence really starts to increase. It’s because a big part of feeling anxious in social settings comes from the fear of not knowing what to say.
  5. What takes the longest time to change is self-esteem. Often it’s first when they’ve made close friends and see themselves as a person people like, that their self-esteem grows really strong.

What changes have you made in your life so far? What was the hardest part of changing? I’m really interested in hearing your own story.
Let me know in the comments!

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David Morin is the founder of SocialPro. He's been writing about social skills since 2012. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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